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ICO (PlayStation 2) artwork

ICO (PlayStation 2) review


" The reason ICO is so difficult to capture in a review is because it is an experience that occurs in the negative spaces that its narrative leaves behind. From the moment you start ICO, you will be struck by how sparse it is. All the game gives players at the beginning is a situation: a young boy with horns is being placed inside a castle, alone. "



Once upon a time there was born a young boy with horns. No, wait, let me start over. Once upon a time there was a young boy who was born in a village where the other boys were probably a lot like him except... hold on. Once upon a time there was a castle overlooking a vast sea. A young boy with horns was brought to the castle by a group of men and, after asking the child to forgive them, they left him enclosed in a stone tank. Then he meets a princess and...

... phew. It isn’t easy writing a fairy-tale. Even though I know the story of ICO inside and out, I can’t seem to recreate it on paper. It follows all the classic fairy-tale rules. There is an ancient castle. There is an evil queen who has imprisoned a beautiful princess. The savior starts off as a potential victim who finds an unexpected strength inside of him. There is romance and tragedy and a big shiny sword.

And there you have it once again. The above description doesn’t do ICO justice at all.

It seems that writers of video games often forget that the entire tradition of dramatic story telling is based on leaving things unsaid. This is what makes ICO, even ten years after its release, a refreshing experience. It is why nobody complains that the back story for the characters is never explained or even touched upon. Anything that the characters don’t feel like explaining out loud is never delved into. Since the boy and the princess don’t speak the same language, this means we don’t get a lot of monologuing. Even the main villain is never understood, as far as her history goes. Nobody cares. It’s that fairy-tale simplicity taking effect. To use a broader example, The Little Mermaid made it from start to finish without explaining what the Sea Witch did to get tossed out of Underwater Paradise (TM)... and only a very few of us feel cheated by that.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand ICO you have to know that first and foremost, it is a game. That might seem obvious when you’re purchasing it off of Amazon, but think about how often this simple rule is broken these days. Think about the times you’ve purchased a game only to sit through what feels like a sixty-hour Michael Bay film, with the only explanation being a statement from the developer that they wanted it to feel “cinematic.” It is refreshing to remember that gaming wasn’t always like this. In the tradition of Mario, or Tetris, or Mega Man (or any other number of best-selling titles), ICO brings the majority of its focus to delivering a gaming system and then making that system fun to navigate. Everything else only informs this system. The concept is simple: lead the princess through all the rooms of the castle, manipulating the environment to create bridges, steps, and platforms for her to cross. To accomplish this, you have to navigate a series of ever-more-complex platforming sessions. The whole thing is timed, too, because if you leave the princess alone for long enough, she gets kidnapped by some truly freaky shadow monsters. If this happens, you have to rush back to beat the creatures off of her.

That’s as complicated as things get. You don’t level up. You don’t have to execute attack combos. Because of this simplicity, it’s incredibly easy to keep playing (it helps, too, that the princess isn’t an idiot). And here’s the real slap-in-the-face to modern developers: ICO does all this and it’s cinematic as hell. But it isn't mindlessly cinematic; the visual environment performs a key role in leading the player through the game.

For a ten-year-old game, ICO animates incredibly well. It uses a style of graphics that is bizarrely realistic without looking like anything you’ve ever seen before. It captures the fleeting sensation of a dream, where individual objects seem to have almost too much detail but, as a whole, the picture is blurry and faded. The slowly turning blades of a windmill are little more than a distraction the first time you see them. The brilliance of the sun and the clearness of the little pond resting at the foot of the mills are the most striking things about the scene... until you begin to climb on the blades. Then the groaning of the ancient mechanism makes itself heard over the cries of the circling gulls and you begin to see every crack in the wall that the young boy clings to. Such changes in focus are subtle but they are also very deliberate. Players will notice things on their own, but they were definitely supposed to notice them. The first time that the young boy makes his way to the outside of the castle and begins clambering around on the crumbling battlements, most players will not be able to help themselves from tilting the camera down to see the castle walls descending to the sea a mile below. Similarly, it’s difficult to avoid seeing, while crossing a waterfall later on, the sparkle of a rainbow in the mist near your next goal. Not once does the young boy say “wow.” It’s not necessary. ICO knows that it is impressive. It chooses to show this to the player rather than to tell them about it.

I’m not sure when “cinematic” became connected with “dramatic-monolouge” in the mind of developers. At some point they became convinced that players needed to have explanations for everything that was going on in order to enjoy a video game. They obviously forgot that the world once went crazy over a game featuring a plumber from Brooklyn fighting evil turtles and mushrooms. Where was the explanation there? Humans love stories, but it is not the explanation that makes a good story. No one asked why Elves existed in The Hobbit. Tolkein explains it in The Silmarillion, but most people haven’t bothered to read it. ICO knows exactly what needs to be explained and what doesn't and, in this manner, more "isn't" than "is." The technique works. By the final moments of the game, you will have gained an emotional understanding of the characters that is more powerful than their history could possibly be. When the word "Fin" appears on the screen, you will feel like a complete story has been concluded, though you'll have as much trouble as I did trying to put it to paper later.

The reason ICO is so difficult to capture in a review is because it is an experience that occurs in the negative spaces that its narrative leaves behind. From the moment you start ICO, you will be struck by how sparse it is. All the game gives players at the beginning is a situation: a young boy with horns is being placed inside a castle, alone. Players are not given the tools to unpack this situation. The men who accompany him don’t explain to him (and thus, to the player) what they are doing or where he’s going. One doesn’t coyly turn to another and say something like “Hey, do you remember the first time we were asked to sacrifice a boy with horns to the Queen so the crops would continue to grow?” And his mate doesn’t respond with “Yes, if I recall it all started right after she lost her first daughter, Esmeralda. Boy, the castle sure used to be beautiful before the Queen went crazy but now it’s gone to shit.”

... and you know what? The game is better for it.

The game is also better for not having a HUD, an item screen, or a colonel calling the young boy up with instructions on where to go next and what the “x” button does. None of these would have added anything here; even though we've been become so used to these gimmicks, it takes only a moment to adjust to their absence. Every decision made in the development of ICO was made to help the game play better and to keep the gamer focused on playing it. Developers are trying so hard these days to make their products something more than they are. ICO never forgot that it was a game and, in doing so, it became something memorable. Like the best pieces of art, it still works today.

Rating: 10/10

zippdementia's avatar
Featured community review by zippdementia (January 07, 2011)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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fleinn posted January 08, 2011:

Mhm. Really like the review, Zipp. Starts a bit slowly, and ends subtly. But the large bit in between on the narrative technique in the title is great.

Not spelling out the course of the game also was effective, I think, because of the way you start - that it's a fairytale story, there will be a princess, a villain, a kingdom of some kind, and then an ending.

..but question: I haven't played the game - do you end up feeling you complete the story, or do you just go along with things until the end, so to speak?
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zippdementia posted January 08, 2011:

There is definitely an ending, and it's one hell of an ending. I would say it concludes the characters emotionally, if not plot wise. You don't feel like their could be a sequel, though.

Oh, and thank you very much for the feedback!
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zippdementia posted January 08, 2011:

Okay, I made a couple very small additions to the end of the Tolkien paragraph to work that explanation in. Thanks for posting, Fleinn!
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JoeTheDestroyer posted January 08, 2011:

I felt about the same ICO. Great game, amazing narrative. Good review, Zipp.

I felt like there could have been a sequel, just not a good one.
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overdrive posted January 08, 2011:

GEEK ALERT PROOFREADING MOMENT:

You misspelled Tolkien's book. It's Silmarillion. I know this because it's on my desk near my computer because during a power outage a month or two back, I started reading it for the SECOND time. There's nothing like a book where I have to go to the character index in the back every five pages to figure out who the hell this guy or that gal is.

Oh, pretty excellent review. My only regret will be the way your Swan Song goes down in flames to me.
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zippdementia posted January 08, 2011:

@ Joethedestroyer: I think I WANTED there to be a sequel, but in the same way I want Snow Crash to have a sequel... I don't think it would actually be any good.

@ Overdrive: this creates nerd rage in me, because it is also sitting on my night stand and I can't believe I didn't spell it right.
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zippdementia posted January 08, 2011:

By the way, there's no way I'll lose to someone who has to use the character index while reading the Silmarillion. Pha.
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overdrive posted January 08, 2011:

You bastard...

There are OVER TWO PAGES in the index of characters/places whose names start with "El". How the hades am I supposed to know who is who? Other than intense concentration, which isn't my strong suit.

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